Last November, armed with only a computer, a microphone and free Audacity software, Will Richardson prepared his first online audio broadcast.
The supervisor of instructional technology and communications at New Jersey's Hunterdon Central Regional High School, Richardson distributed what is known as a podcast through his online blog, Weblogg-ed. He also recorded a mobile podcast from his car with a laptop computer on the way back from a conference.
He worked with no scripts, said "ah" and "um" a lot, but concluded that, "At least a hundred kids at my school would love to do this." In fact, the "legendary" Matthew Bischoff, a 13-year-old eighth grader from another New Jersey school, is sending weekly podcasts from his Web site ESC From the World as often as he can ("I have too much homework to podcast tonight," he wrote recently).
These early adopters are part of a do-it-yourself radio phenomenon that is spreading across the Internet like wildfire. While podcasts usually sound off-the-cuff with garbled sentences and dead spaces, others rival the quality of professional radio shows.
The topics are as varied as the people who record them, and range from individual observations on jazz and board games to political commentary produced by public radio stations and The New York Times. The numbers of podcasts climbed from a single technology-centered show called Trade Secrets to more than six-dozen podcasts in less than a month. The audience for Trade Secrets swelled from 1,000 to 6,000 in barely a week. I now regularly get insider news from ground-breaking podcasts such as Engadget, IT Conversations, and Webtalk Radio.
The term podcasting originated from a contraction of the word broadcasting and Apple's iPod, since the technology can send audio files through computers to portable players including iPods, PDAs and cell phones. These shows can then be listened to on demand.
Podcasts are possible because of RSS, or "Really Simple Syndication," technology that is commonly used to send text news feeds to Web sites. It now also carries audio files as enclosures. While MP3 music and speech files have been offered over the Internet for several years, podcasting makes it simple for individuals to record and upload their own programs. Furthermore, by installing one of the many free products that access podcasts, such as iPodder, users can subscribe to specific programs that download automatically as they are produced, without visiting Web sites. The recorded content can then be heard through players including Windows Media Player, RealPlayer or iTunes, which also set up playlists for repeated use.
Podcasting is so new that educators and students are essentially writing the book on bringing the technology to teaching and learning. Current applications range from placing audio updates from administrators on district Web sites, recording class presentations for later review, uploading interviews of community leaders and producing online school radio broadcasts. Duke University distributed iPods with school-related information and instructional content to all of its first-year students this year, and similar applications are being discussed at K-12 levels, too. Podcasts are popping up everywhere.
There are growing numbers of online examples of podcasts in schools and resources for getting started, including those listed below. Several online directories are also available, such as Podcast.net, to bring significant programs to the attention of your staff and students. However, keep in mind the content of podcasts is unregulated, which is both refreshing and alarming. It is essential to supervise and establish policies for its use in schools. Podcasting didn't even exist five months ago, and it is already pioneering powerful new forms of online communications that you need to explore.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.